Lessons from Charlie Gard

Archbishop Aquila

After living one week short of a year, Baby Charlie Gard passed on to eternal life on July 28th. His brief life and the court battle over his treatment should move us to pray for him and his family and to reflect on the lessons it holds for the ongoing health care debate in our own country.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story of Charlie Gard, he was an almost one-year-old English boy with a rare genetic disorder called mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome. The disease damaged his brain and left him unable to move his arms or legs. Over the last few months, Charlie’s parents had to appeal to a series of courts to prevent his doctors from removing him from a ventilator and to allow their child to be admitted to an experimental clinical trial in the U.S.

In Britain, if the parents of a minor or the patient himself disagrees with the doctors about treatment, the disagreement is settled in the court system. This means that the patient is at the mercy of a judge. Charlie’s mother, Connie Yates, described how this resulted in the denial of their request to bring their son home for his final days. She told Sky News, “We just want some peace with our son, no hospital, no lawyers, no courts, no media, just quality time with Charlie away from everything to say goodbye to him in the most loving way. We’ve had no control over our son’s life and no control over our son’s death.”

When Pope Francis heard about the battle over Charlie’s care, he said that he hoped his parents’ wish to “accompany and care for their child” would be respected to the end. Unfortunately, as time and the court battles went on, the damage to his body reached a point that meant the clinical trial in the U.S. was no longer a possibility. And in the end, Charlie was not allowed to go home to die. Instead, the judge ruled that he would be taken to a hospice, where he would be removed from a ventilator and subsequently pass away. Much to the dismay of his parents, this is what happened on July 28th.

As we consider the future of health care in our country and as some politicians call for a government-run system, we should not gloss over the tendency for such systems to usurp the rights of parents to determine what is in their child’s best interest, and for that matter, the rights of patients to manage their own health care.

Another danger is the demand by the government for immoral procedures, such as the Health and Human Services contraception mandate that targeted the Little Sisters of the Poor and others. All too often, one sees state-run health systems make decisions based on a drive for efficiency, a patient’s so-called “quality of life,” or along ideological lines, rather than seeking to uphold patients’ inherent dignity as a human person. In the “throwaway culture” in which we live, our hearts are hardened against caring for those with disabilities and the dying.

Reform efforts for our health system should respect the rights of patients and parents to make decisions about their own medical treatment, the conscience rights of medical professionals and the principal of subsidiarity. The story of Charlie Gard makes the consequences of doing otherwise clear.

While Congress considers repealing the Affordable Care Act, it should also keep in mind that any replacement should treat health care not as a privilege, but a right founded upon the right to life and the God-given dignity of every person. The level of care we extend to the poor and sick should not be curtailed because of their financial means, health or the decisions of hospital officials.

The plight of so many people who are sick and in need of care reminds me of Emma Lazarus’ poem “The Great Colossus,” which can be found in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus was a Portuguese Sephardic Jew who spent much of her time helping poor and often sick refugees as they arrived at Ward Island near New York City. She wrote, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I pray that in the coming months our lawmakers will strive to craft legislation that places the dignity of the person at the center of health care, so that our country will continue to care for the sick and downtrodden. Let us also pray for Charlie’s family and all those who are facing medical trials. May our Father grant them peace, wisdom and fortitude.

Charlie Gard. Photo: Facebook, Charlie Gard’s Fight.

COMING UP: 500 years later, who was Luther?

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Hero, villain, heretic, saint, reformer, corrupter, man of integrity, bombastic glutton. Which image of Luther should we believe? Because Luther primarily sought not to reform abuses in the Church but to reform the Church’s beliefs, Catholics cannot recognize him as a true reformer or a holy man. Nonetheless, it is widely agreed that Luther played a major role in shaping the modern world. With the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement he initiated approaching on October 31st, we have been given a number of new books to assess his legacy.

Paul Hacker, Luther’s Faith: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion, preface by Pope Benedict XVI (Emmaus, 2017).

Hacker’s book provides an in-depth, theological analysis of the issue that stands at the heart of the Reformation: Luther’s teaching on salvation by faith alone. Pope Benedict’s preface tells us that the Reformation dispute fundamentally concerned Luther’s “turning away from the center of the Gospel” (xxii). Emmaus released a new edition of Hacker’s book for the anniversary this year. It was published originally in 1970 (in English translation), the fruit of Hacker’s own intense study of Luther’s teaching on faith that led him into the Catholic Church from German Lutheranism.

Catholics agree with Protestants that salvation comes only through faith. The key issue of dispute, which Hacker reveals, is Luther’s subjective emphasis of absolute, personal certainty, which cannot be undermined even by serious sin. Hacker describes Luther’s faith as reflexive, that is turned back on oneself, by emphasizing subjective experience and personal surety more than anything else. He describes how Luther differs from the Catholic position: “Faith is the way to, or the perquisite of, salvation, but Luther makes it coincide with salvation itself. This becomes possible because he has first identified salvation with the consciousness of being saved or the certitude of salvation, and then he equates this consciousness with faith” (71). Hacker shows us how this view of faith negated the Church’s authority, the sacraments, and even the need to love God.

Brad Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World (HarperOne, 2017).

For those looking for a more general and accessible book, Brad Gregory gives us a broader narrative of how Luther’s troubled conscience exploded into the crisis that tore Christendom in two. The first section looks at Luther’s own story, tracing step by step his conflict with Church authority. The second section explains how Luther’s teaching spawned a multitude of new sects and divisions, all interpreting the Bible in their own fashion. Greggory explains: “What the early Reformation shows so clearly is that scripture and the Spirt can be interpreted and applied in radically divergent ways. Once the papacy and the Catholic Church are thrown off, there are no shared authorities to adjudicate disagreements” (137). The final section looks at how the Reformation set the tone for the development of a secular culture. Though not intending these consequences, Gregory argues that the Protestant Reformers “led indirectly to a profound diminishing of Christianity’s public influence in Western societies. The religious disagreements and conflicts that followed the Reformation set the stage for religion’s eventual separation from the rest of life” (2).

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017).

Metaxas, who wrote a monumental biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, provides us with a different perspective on Luther. His book seems poised to capture the largest audience for the anniversary this year. While I can’t agree with his view of Luther as a hero of faith, I can appreciate his presentation of a more sympathetic and thorough look at a man who has inspired many Protestant Christians. It is helpful to recognize why Luther is such an important figure for so many people. This book definitely provides many more details on the life of Luther (with over 450 pages). However, I would exercise caution, because it unfortunately also contains many gross misrepresentations of the state of the Church at the time of the Reformation.

For instance, even though Metaxas shows us many ways that Luther encountered the Bible in his early life, he still claims that the Bible and Church had no connection in the early 1500s and that “the study of the Bible per se was simply unheard of” (52). Luther himself was a theology professor and throughout the Middle Ages the Bible was the primary text for teaching theology. Brad Gregory makes clear in his book on Luther that there were even “twenty-two editions of the complete vernacular Bible . . . published in German . . . by 1518” (29). Metaxas presents a false picture of Catholics as ignorant, afraid to pray to Christ, and thinking they must earn their salvation through works. Good historical research could easily dispel these myths, such as the books of Eamon Duffy, but we see Protestants continue to project Luther’s own scruples (hating God and spending six hours in Confession, 47) onto the Church of his time.

Jerome K. Williams, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (Augustine Institute, 2017).

What could have Luther been if he had chosen faithful reform? The answer is a saint. There is no doubt that the Church was in need of serious reform in the 1500s. We have a number of great saints who show us that fidelity to God does not contradict fidelity to His Church. They stood against corruption and initiated deep and abiding reform. The Augustine Institute has release both a book and video series on true reformers, who boldly spoke out against abuses and led to a deeper realization of the truth found in the Bible, read in harmony with the Church. These figures—Teresa of Avila, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, and Charles Borromeo, for instance—continue to inspire us to take up the task of genuine reform today.